ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- If your winter wheat survived the growing season -- and that's a big if -- chances are it's looking pretty good.
That's the story of the 2018-19 winter wheat crop in a nut shell, with a delayed harvest finally underway in the Southern Plains.
"It was a trying year for producers from April through harvest, because it seemed like every night, the potential existed for us to lose the crop," said Mike Schulte, executive director for the Oklahoma Wheat Commission.
Between delayed planting, record-setting amounts of rain and the usual spring and summer hailstorm lottery playing out across the Great Plains, many fields were left unplanted or lost altogether this year. But what survived also benefited from plentiful soil moisture and below-average temperatures during grain fill, noted Kansas State University Extension wheat and forages specialist Romulo Lollato.
"The main concern this year was that the crop was so far behind in development this spring that it was going to catch the summer heat during grain fill," Lollato explained. "But that didn't happen. We've had very unusual weather -- near-perfect temperatures and pretty cool even into July." As a result, reports of good yields and high test weights are following the combines as the harvest inches northward.
"Yield-wise, there is a fair amount of variability by plant date," noted Kyle Krier, who is about halfway through harvesting his winter wheat near Claflin, Kansas, where his planting dates ranged from September to November. "The earlier planted is doing better; the late planted not as well."
Protein levels are coming in low in the Kansas crop, as would be expected in higher-yielding fields with nitrogen leaching and little heat stress. But the Oklahoma crop has produced higher protein levels than expected, which should allow for good blending opportunities for end users, added Justin Gilpin, CEO of Kansas Wheat.
THE CHALLENGES OF THE 2018-19 GROWING SEASON
Some of his land in central Kansas currently resembles a giant, leaking sponge, Krier said. "There's just way too much water," he said. "The water table has risen to ground level in some areas."
Persistent rain in the fall of 2018 dragged out Krier's winter wheat planting for six long weeks, and he had to declare prevented planting on some of his acres. These conditions helped contribute to a near-record-low winter wheat planting of just 31.7 million acres across the country.
The springtime weather did not relent. Kansas experienced its wettest month of May in recorded history. The state averaged over 10 inches of rain that month, and much of it fell in the wheat-heavy region of central Kansas.
"Wheat doesn't like extreme amounts of rain," Lollato said. "The wheat in the central part of the state actually went backwards. Fields that were very flat and not well drained, from mid-May to the third week of May, heads were going white and the wheat was dying prematurely."
Likewise, many Oklahoma wheat growers had the unusual experience of managing an overwatered crop, Schulte said. "The crop was really saturated from planting to harvest," he noted. "It never lacked for moisture, and there was always concern about root development because it never had to root down for water."
Then, in May and again in June, the skies unleashed an even more damaging phenomenon across parts of Kansas and Oklahoma.
"We were ground zero on one hailstorm in mid-June," Krier recalled. "The center went through here and just flattened 140 acres." Another 500 were damaged, he said.
And of course, thanks to the abundant moisture, diseases were in the mix this year as well, Lollato said. Hot spots of stripe rust and leaf rust cropped up in central Kansas. "Fungicide applications in the central part of the state proved very valuable this year," he said.
More concerning was the appearance of Fusarium head blight, known as head scab, in fields in north and south-central Kansas, Lollato added. "It was an above-average year for head scab," he said. "We've seen anywhere from 1% to 2% affected heads to 20% to 25% affected heads in fields with a susceptible variety grown on corn stalks."
Elevator discounts for the presence of deoxynivalenol (DON), known as vomitoxin, are possible in these regions of the state, he added.
EXCELLENT + TERRIBLE = AVERAGE
With all those woes visited upon the crop, expectations were pretty low for winter wheat yields, Krier noted.
"Thirty to 60 days ago, I thought we would be cutting 30- to 40-bushel wheat, maximum," he said. "It just did not have the heat, it didn't have the tillers and the wheat was so small." But thanks to the cool weather during grain fill and plenty of moisture, surviving wheat fields are yielding well and producing high test weights so far.
Krier's wheat has yielded above 50 bpa, and test weights are averaging a hefty 62 pounds.
"Best yields ever here in the dry High Plains," added Oklahoma Panhandle farmer Kenneth Rose. "Test weights are 60 to 63 lbs., protein is in the 12% range, and yields are 60 to 70 bpa."
Lollato said he has heard reports of yields ranging from 20 bpa to 60 bpa in central Kansas. In western Kansas, which saw better weather, the range bumps up to 60 bpa all the way to 100 bpa, he said. "Between the extremes, I wouldn't be surprised if we ended up with an average-yielding year for the state," he said.
Schulte expects protein levels for Oklahoma's wheat crop to average near 12% -- a surprise to many.
"Based on all the rainfall, we thought that nitrogen would probably have leached out and would not be in the subsoil profile, so we really did not expect a high-protein crop," he said. "But the crop quality of wheat that has been reported at the USDA lab in Manhattan has been showing favorable quality attributes for millers and bakers. It may be the best quality in a crop we've seen in the last 10 to 15 years."
Protein levels are lower in Kansas so far, a natural consequence of harvesting large, starch-heavy kernels, Gilpin said. "In high-yielding areas, we are seeing lower protein, but we're also hearing of 11% and 12% being harvested in spots, too, depending on the area of the state and management of the crop," Gilpin said. Combined with Oklahoma's higher protein levels, "Harvest is going well so far, from a wheat marketing standpoint," he concluded.
Soon, some growers will need to turn their attention to controlling volunteer wheat following harvest. Dropped kernels will find plenty of moisture to sprout in the weeks to come -- and the volunteer plants can provide a "green bridge" for the wheat curl mite to survive and infect fall-planted wheat with wheat streak mosaic virus.
"Volunteer wheat is going to be awful this year on our hailed acres," Krier said. "It will be solid grain out there as soon as we get an inch of rain. There will be a lot of spraying on that field this year."
Growers who have head scab or flood-damaged wheat should also be alert for volunteer wheat, Lollato added. "A lot of those light, low-test-weight kernels get vented out of the back of the combine," he said. "They're pretty small and shriveled, but they can still germinate in the right conditions."
For now, though, Schulte said wheat growers who have finished harvest should take a well-earned moment to breathe -- and be thankful.
"This was one of the most stressful seasons and harvests that I had experienced," he said. "I think most producers were just thankful to have it over with."
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org
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